In my bathroom there are two pictures taped to the mirror above the sink: one of Lenda Murray, the current Ms. Olympia, and one of Nora, my sister. On days I didn't want to workout, I stared at Nora's slim body. In the photo, Nora hugged a palm tree and winked at the camera. "God, it's hot in California," she said, afterward. "Do you think I could go for a drive?" Nora was 17, a high school senior from Nebraska with a full-tuition scholarship to Harvard in the fall. I kissed her cheek and handed her the keys to the Rabbit, not knowing she wouldn't come back, that the car would run out of gas, that her body would be found two states away in the back of a stripped camper shell, rotting from 110 degree desert heat, blood and semen crusting on her parted purple lips.
When I looked at that picture, I cupped a fist with my palm and caressed the knuckles, one by one. I whispered, softly, tenderly, "Nora, baby," before I slipped into a muscle shirt and shorts. I laced up my Nikes, ready to lift the weight of a grown man from my breasts.
On a Thursday night, I lay down on a black vinyl bench at Gold's Gym, closed my eyes, and curled my fingers around a bar stacked with 150-pound weights. My best friend and workout partner, Georgiana, stood above me, shadowing my grip. I inhaled and lifted the bar from its cradle. My chest tightened, and I saw Nora's killer, a bald vulture with rotten teeth, descend. I squeezed the bar and felt him tremble. Just before he touched my breasts, I exhaled and heaved him up. One, Georgiana counted. Again the killer descended, close enough for me to smell the whiskey on his breath, before I pushed him off me. Again, and again. On the tenth repetition, metal clicked against metal, and I opened my eyes. The killer was gone. Sweat dripped from my forehead.
"Not bad," Georgiana said. "You'll be able to raise that weight next week."
I sat up, swung my legs over the bench. I wiped my forehead and gulped a mouthful of water from a water bottle Georgiana handed me. "I want to be at 200 for the contest."
Georgiana shrugged. "I don't know if you can do it. That's an extra 50 pounds." Georgiana's gaze staggered off into the distance, and her face softened. "Hey, Stacey, check out the new aerobics instructor."
"Later. I want to do one more set." I wasn't here to ogle at women, though I sometimes found myself comparing the definitions of their biceps and the tone of their thighs in the locker room while I showered and dressed. Usually Georgiana didn't notice them either. We were serious weight trainers, amateur hopefuls, and our five day a week excursion to Gold's Gym reflected our commitment to our bodies, our selves.
I thought about adding more weights, then changed my mind when I noticed Georgiana staring down the hall like a child entranced by the Pied Piper's song. I lay down on the bench and slid under the bar. "Pay attention and spot me, Juliet."
"Huh, oh, yeah." Georgiana cupped her hands outside my wide grip. After five repetitions, I called it quits.
"So, where's the instructor?" I asked.
"Huh, oh, yeah, the instructor." Georgiana's gaze trailed across the mirrored walls past the locker rooms and down the hall where dance music bounced. A woman's high pitched voice shouted, "One, two, three. . ."
We took a break, grabbed our water bottles, and sauntered toward the aerobics room. I didn't believe pounding my feet against a carpeted floor and throwing my arms over my head could be considered serious exercise. Sure, it accelerated the heartbeat and pumped blood into the extremities, but so did a good horror flick. It couldn't shape my body into the hard chiseled features I was looking for.
In the long, narrow room, Georgiana nodded toward a woman in pink leotards with a white cotton sweatband over her blond bangs. She smiled as she shouted instructions over the booming music. Her slender arms and legs sprung up and down with exuberant energy. Georgiana leaned against the doorjamb, a dreamy look in her brown eyes. The woman reminded me of a curious cheerleader I had dated in college, the one who said she wanted to try things out, the one I drove home only to discover she was Georgiana's steady a year before we met. Georgiana laughed when I told her. "She fooled you, too," she said.
"Almost, not quite. I'm sharper than you," I teased.
I tugged on Georgiana's damp muscle shirt. "Okay, enough, Juliet. She's not my type."
Georgiana crossed her arms and tossed her head. "Who says we're looking for you?" Georgiana -- faithful confidante, listless dreamer -- was not the same young woman I had met five years ago at a college bar. Formerly, a reed-thin runner whose bouts with anorexia eliminated her from competing nationally, she had over the years gained a hefty amount of weight along with a quiet self-confidence. I saw her sneaking glimpses at pretty women who passed our table on Friday nights, flirting with the teenage waitress who wore too much make-up, slathering too much butter on her dinner rolls, and chewing with her mouth open. She had cut her long brown curls into a stylish bob and had learned to swagger like a bad guy in an old western movie. I loved her the way you love a younger, irrepressible sister, unconditionally. And she loved me back in her careless, no-nonsense fashion which I had taken for granted as the years past. When I started working out two years ago, Georgiana joined me. We never discussed it. Good friends were like that, I guessed, close enough to almost read each other's thoughts.
I balled my hand into a fist and playfully nudged Georgiana in the ribs. "Let's go, Juliet."
Georgiana waved. "Go ahead and shower. I'll meet you here in ten minutes."
In the musty shower stall, I soaped up, feeling strange about Georgiana's sudden infatuation. As I toweled dried my short crop of hair and rubbed gel into the ends, I wondered about Georgiana's lapse in concentration as we worked out and speculated on how it might effect us. Weight training required alertness and dedication. Neither of us could afford a slip in either of them if we wanted to compete next year in the amateur competition as planned.
At the registration counter, I waited for Georgiana. Women and men with nylon gym bags signed in and out. I poked my head into the aerobics class, thinking she might still be in there. The instructor was bent over a portable stereo player changing the tape. Her high curved buttocks arched in the air, and a pang of longing startled me. I turned around and bumped into Georgiana's broad chest.
"Ah-ha, caught you, woman." A broad smile creased her tan face. "So, we agree she's a ten."
"Seven and a half," I said, trying to be playful. "Her triceps are flabby and her hips are too broad."
"That's normal on a woman."
"Are you saying I'm not normal?"
Georgiana held open the door. We strolled into the parking lot. Hazy sunlight
slanted across our backs. It was early fall, and I was looking forward to viewing the first football game of the season. Georgiana unlocked the passenger door to her old Dodge. "No, you're beyond normal." Georgiana squeezed my shoulder. "You're goddess of the free weights."
Two Sundays later, I arrived at Georgiana's apartment a little before noon, hoping to help her clean the dishes I knew would be in the sink, and tidy up the living room somewhat so we could actually sit on the couch. When Georgiana answered the door, her smile vanished. "Uh, Stacey, didn't you get my message?"
"What message?" I wedged my foot into the apartment before she could close the door. "Game isn't till one, right? I thought I'd come by early. Surprise you."
"Yeah, big surprise."
"Well, aren't you going to let your best friend in? Or am I going to have to watch the game through the window?"
Georgiana followed me into the living room. "Holy shit," I said. "What happened here? Did Mary Poppins drop in for a visit or what?"
No more Chinese take-out cartons or pizza boxes teetered on the coffee table like avant-garde sculptures. Someone had fluffed the pillows and neatly arranged them on the beige couch. The green carpet had been vacuumed and sprayed with the scent of wild flowers. Even the TV screen gleamed with our reflections.
The kitchen sink stared vacantly at me. The counters sparkled. I opened the refrigerator. Romaine lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, onions, mushrooms, and oranges filled the shelves instead of the usual ribs, milk, and a case of Michelob beer.
"What's come over you?" I asked, twisting the top off a bottle of mineral water. I leaned back on the couch, feeling the springiness of the cushions without a wad of newspaper and back issues of Sports Illustrated under my bottom.
Georgiana squatted on an armrest and clasped her hands, glancing anxiously at the door. "Listen, Stace, I have a visitor coming. I thought we could tape the game and watch it later. Maybe tomorrow night after work?"
"What? I can't believe you'd go through the trouble of cleaning your house and then boot me out. It doesn't make sense."
"I have a date. Linda's coming over."
"The aerobics instructor."
"You asked her on a date? I don't believe you. How could
you cancel on me? Who the hell is this woman? Ms. Fitness U.S.A.?"
"It's just one date? Like hell I understand. If you cancel this, what makes me think you won't cancel the Super Bowl? How am I supposed to trust you'll even show up at the gym?" I smacked my forehead, feigning inspiration. "Oh, well, of course, you'll show. You have to have an excuse to see Linda, right? You just won't pay attention when there's music in the other room. You'll let me lie there with a 150 pounds on my chest screaming for mercy."
"Stop it!" Georgiana slapped her palms against her thighs and stood up. "Listen. I don't get angry when you go out, so why can't you accept I have a date?"
"I never go out. And it's not just a date. You canceled on me. Me. You're oldest friend. Hell, I've never canceled anything. Not even when my mother was sick in the hospital. Not even when my sister died. Jeez, Georgiana, have some common sense. Friends, first, then lovers."
"She has kids. We're catching a matinee before dinner. The sitter's in high school -- big exam tomorrow -- and can't stay up late."
"How about next weekend?" I asked.
"They're going to Marine World. She said she wanted to get to know me first by myself. Didn't want to scare me off with her kids. I said, Sure, no problem. I left you the message last night. It's not my fault your roommate didn't give it to you. I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings. There'll be a next time."
"Crazy in love."
Georgiana touched my knee. "Listen. I don't mean to be rude. You can stay for a bit. Just keep your feet off the coffee table. I just polished."
"Jeez, you are in love."
I crossed my arms over my chest and stared up at the cottage-cheese ceiling.
When Nora and I were little girls, we always thought the particles would fall into our eyes and make us cry. The sudden memory seized me, and I closed my eyes, hoping it would go away. A trickle of fear and loneliness seeped into my chest. I didn't want to argue: maybe there won't be a next time. How did I know? It might be just one date, and she'll be gone forever. Maybe Georgiana will hate her kids, or the dog will get sick. C'mon, Stacey, I told myself, let her go in peace. You'd want the same thing, right?
I opened my eyes, feigned a smile, and tried to be polite. "So, tell me about this Linda."
Georgiana's shoulders slacked and she nestled beside me on the couch. For a moment, Georgiana gazed off in the distance as if visualizing everything she knew of this woman she had asked out. "There's not much to tell," she said. "She's thirty-two, divorced, two kids, girl and boy, ten and seven, willing to settle down if the right woman shows up."
Georgiana gave me a sidelong glance, a sly way of letting me know she was thinking something she knew I wouldn't approve of, but couldn't help thinking anyway. I slapped her thigh and laughed. "You're hoping you're the right woman."
Georgiana shrugged. "It's too early to tell." The doorbell rang. "That's her. You'd better get going. Sorry about the game."
"No problem," I lied. "Just make sure it doesn't happen again. Old friends don't like to lose status, you know?" I jabbed her playfully in the ribs, gulped the rest of the mineral water, and placed the bottle on the coffee table. Georgiana gasped. She snatched
the bottle and rubbed the ring of water with the edge of her T-shirt, then bolted for the door. Her close-set brown eyes twinkled like twin stars and her lips parted fully to reveal the crooked front teeth she hated to show. "Hello, Linda, you're looking lovely. Have you met my workout partner, Stacey Bennett?"
I offered Linda my hand. Her fingers were smooth and slim in my broad, veiny grasp. She looked like a greeting card angel with her blond hair exploding in a golden nimbus around her heart-shaped face. Our eyes met, and she smiled. A dimple pierced her left cheek. I held Linda's hand a moment too long. My throat constricted and my heart thumped wildly in my chest. "I'd better be going," I said. I squeezed between them to get out the door. I kept my eyes on the pavement. My voice was scarcely a whisper. "See you Monday at the gym," I said to Georgiana.
For a moment after Georgiana had closed the door, I stood listlessly in the breezeway with the early afternoon air souring around me. The fog had burned off, but the sky was overcast. Thick gray clouds hunkered down against my shoulders, casting a shadowy gloom over my thoughts. I dragged my feet across the cracked pavement and shut the door of my black Bronco, feeling safe in the cool interior. I rolled down the window and stared at the parked cars, wishing I had never come.
The emptiness I had avoided since Nora's death washed over me, drowning me in a swirl of emotions. Working out with Georgiana had eased the burden of guilt I had felt in giving Nora my car keys, thinking she'd be safe, believing she'd come home.
Every Friday night after our workout, Georgiana and I met at Iggy's Sports Bar. We talked about work -- Georgiana clerked part-time at a local video store while dickering around in school, still trying to settle on a major, and I taught eighth grade physical education and coached a girl's softball team in the summer. Sometimes we'd talk about other things in our lives, what little there was left of them. Even in Georgiana's company, I never forgot Nora. Sometimes after too many beers, I'd start blabbing about how wonderful Nora had been. Nora had volunteered as a candy striper at the hospital, helping patients recover from surgery. She had trusted people, and had lived by her motto, Never judge, especially after I had told her I like women. Georgiana would listen sympathetically and pat my hand. Then she'd remind me of how each year I'd scout for a skinny girl with two left feet or a fat girl with glasses, and how I'd take them under my wing and coach them even though they had no real hope of becoming athletes. "You have compassion, like Nora," she'd say. What I had never confessed to Georgiana was that I thought by mentoring those awkward girls I could make it up to Nora, somehow, someway. But every year when those girls graduated and left for high school, I was bereft.
A few minutes later, I spied Georgiana and Linda leaving in Georgiana's old Dodge. They were smiling and laughing at some private joke. Long after they had left, I turned the key in the ignition and revved the engine. Once Georgiana and I had discussed what we would do if either of us found a girlfriend. But that was three years ago, and the talk had been light-hearted, far from serious. Georgiana confessed to being shy, and now that I was training, I had no time for romance. Seeing Georgiana leave with Linda left me feeling numb like I had at Nora's funeral. The reality struck me as odd, out of place, almost impossible. A date? Somehow, in spite of my grief and anger, I'd always imagined I'd be first.
At home, I decided not to watch the game. Instead, I phoned my 65-year-old mother in Nebraska. Cecilia and I had never been close, she was always too conservative and outspoken, and I was too edgy and forlorn to care about the things she cared for: gardening, cooking, and chitchatting with neighbors. I moved to California to attend the University of California, Berkeley, and settled nearby after graduation. When Nora died, I flew out for a week, but didn't stay. I couldn't bear the pale pink walls, the lace curtains, the teddy bears and the posters of Van Halen in my sister's room, the room we had shared before I had moved to California. Mom tried to persuade me to retire downstairs in the guestroom, but everywhere I turned, I'd see my sister's long dirty blond hair, her slender arms, her fragile legs. I'd smell her apricot skin in the pies Mom baked and hear her tangy laughter in the wind rustling outside the window. For twenty-two hours, I slipped from room to room, dodging Nora's ghost, until I packed my bags and left, heavy from guilt and fear and longing. I never came back.
I looked up Cecilia's phone number in my red address book and dialed the number.
"Hello?" My mother's voice cracked into a cough, a remnant of thirty years of smoking. I imagined her seated in a wide armchair in the living room dressed in a floral housecoat with her gray hair bundled high on her head and a dash of rosy lipstick streaked across her narrow lips. Beside her, a second cup of coffee cooled and static crackled from a portable radio tuned to an obnoxious talk show.
"Mom, it's Stacey. In California."
"Why haven't you visited?"
"I've been busy."
"For three years? Have you heard about the Wilsons?"
"No, I didn't call to here about the neighbors. I wanted to talk to you."
"Just talk, Mom. Can't we just talk?"
"Humph. You never wanted to talk. You said I was too hog stubborn and pigeon minded. Like I've always said, You're too big for Nebraska. But I suppose you're happy."
I twirled the phone cord and thought of Georgiana dating Linda. "Pretty much, I guess. I've been working out a lot. I'm going to compete. Bring home a medal, just like I did in high school, remember?"
My mother coughed, then cleared her throat. "Don't suppose you'd like to come visit this year. The Stewarts will be celebrating with their grandkids and they've invited me, but I'd rather stay home and cook my own dinner, if you know what I mean. It'd be
mighty nice if you'd come and visit. Bring a girlfriend, if you'd like."
It was a generous offer, coming from my mother, the woman who threatened me with passages of Sodom and Gomorrah when she caught me kissing Jenny Stewart in the backyard when I was in high school.
"I'll have to think about it," I said, lowering my voice.
"I've redecorated. You could stay in your old room."
"Why don't you come to California? I have a big kitchen."
"Too much skin," Mom quipped.
The silence between us widened. I thought of my sister's hair floating down the banister, cascading over the table cloth, lighting the air with a subtle perfume. And then I thought of my mother, alone, since Nora died, sitting around a table with neighbors who cared more about her than I did, the only living relative who seldom called and never wrote.
"You weren't this way when your daddy died," Mom said.
"Daddy wasn't murdered."
"It ain't your fault, sweetheart." Mom's rough voice softened. "How many times must I say it? No one blamed you."
My fingers gripped the cord too tightly. The knuckles glowed white. "I'll think about it and let you know," I said.
Six weeks later, Georgiana was still dating Linda. She arrived early at the gym for Linda's five-thirty aerobics class, then plunged into weightlifting with me at six-thirty. At first, I didn't say anything. Georgiana was a grown woman, and if she thought she could handle two workouts, then she probably could. Only her stamina had diminished steadily over those six weeks, and I found it nearly impossible to challenge her.
"C'mon, Georgie, one more set. You need to lift more than that if you want to compete next year." It was Thursday night at the gym and we were finishing up our arm workout. Georgiana had only completed two lightweight sets. I stood beside her, watching her elbows tremble each time she lowered the weight.
Georgiana released the dumbbells and wiped the sweat from her forehead. "We need to talk," she said.
"Later." I grabbed two twenty-pound dumbbells and straddled the black vinyl bench in front of the mirrors. I shouted over the loud rock and roll music piped in through the speakers. "You need to spot me, first."
Georgiana returned the fifteen-pound weights to their cradles, one at a time. There was preciseness to her movements that I interpreted as frailty, an almost too exacting cautiousness that had only surfaced since her aerobic workouts with Linda.
"I'm not competing," Georgiana said.
I stopped in mid-set. "Why not? Did Linda tell you not to?"
"No, I've been meaning to tell you for some time."
"So, why are you bringing it up now? What's changed?"
"I need to graduate and get a real job. I'm almost thirty and I'm living like a teenager!" Georgiana stared at me. "I can't do it, Stacey. I can't see myself working out five days a week anymore. It's insane. I need to get my life together."
I set the dumbbells on the weight rack and gazed at Georgiana's reflection. The void I had ignored when Nora had died flooded into my veins again. I glanced away from Georgiana's reflection and stared at the blue rivers of blood beneath my skin. I flexed my arm, and the rivers surged. When I spoke, my voice bristled with despondent anger. "First, Friday nights, now workouts. Next you'll be telling me to forget the games. What will that leave us?"
Georgiana shrugged. "Can't we still be friends?"
"What about Linda? What does she think of us?"
"She's cool about it. She knows you're not interested in me."
I felt the walls of privacy I had built crumble around me. "What else did you tell her?"
"I said you live to workout. That's all you seem to care about anymore."
"That's not true." My throat constricted. My hands clenched. Beads of perspiration dripped down my forehead and stung my eyes. "That's not all I care about and you know it. I care about lots of other things. Things I thought you cared about too, but I was wrong. All wrong." I snatched my water bottle and towel and trotted toward the locker rooms.
"Stacey, wait. You're not going to let this destroy us, are you?"
"That's not for me to decide, Juliet. I'm not the one in love, remember?"
Georgiana touched my shoulder. "Listen, Stacey, I've been thinking. Maybe you could come over to Linda's for Thanksgiving. That way neither one of us has to be alone. What do you say?"
I folded my arms across my chest and frowned. "Forget it," I said. "Just leave me alone."
I stalked into the locker room,
stripped, and lay naked in the dry sauna. A few minutes later, the door cracked
open and Linda stepped in with a towel hugged around her breasts. She smiled when
she noticed me. "Aren't you Georgiana's partner?"
"I'm sorry, but I forgot your name."
"Stacey." I closed my eyes and rolled my head toward the ceiling. Steam rose off the pores of my skin and hissed like the dry coals.
Linda seated herself on the bench below me and arranged her hair into a knot above her head so that her long hair wouldn't brush against my arm. "How long have you and Georgiana been friends?"
"Five years." And I ended up taking a backseat to you in only six weeks.
"Georgiana tells me you're planning on competing next year." Linda's voice was modulated like a schoolteacher's.
I grunted. I didn't want to talk about it. There was nothing to talk about anymore.
"I teach a morning class at Fifth Street," Linda explained. "And I hear there's this girl named Erika who's looking for a partner. She's competed before and won a state title. I hear she's a good person to workout with. If you'd like, I'll get her phone number for you."
I rolled onto my side and opened my eyes. "Did Georgiana put you up to this?" I asked. "Because if she did, the answer's no."
"I haven't seen Georgiana since class. I only mentioned it because I know how much potential you have, and working out with Georgiana's not going to get you where you want to go." Linda propped one leg on the bench and leaned her head beside my arm. A dreamy smile appeared on her face. "I was only thinking about you on the cover of one of those fitness magazines," she said. "You're built like a winner."
"Thanks." It was the best compliment I had received in my life.
"Think about it," Linda said. "I'd love to help." A strand of hair fell from her head and brushed my shoulder. My skin tingled, electrified by the unexpected touch. I saw Nora kissing my cheek, saying good-bye to me. A wall of reserve lowered, and I felt damaged and alone. Linda gazed at me with solemn concern, and I realized how easily it must have been for Georgiana to fall in love with her.
Feeling more exposed than naked, I climbed down the bench and wrapped a towel around my breasts.
"Will you think about it?" Linda asked, her voice gently insistent.
I gripped the handle of the door, afraid to turn around and surrender to hope. "Yes, I 'd like the help," I said. "Very much."
Next Sunday, I brought a bag of tortilla chips and salsa to Georgiana's apartment as a gift of atonement for my brash display of anger during the week. When Georgiana greeted me at the door, she pushed back a mop of dark curls from her forehead and straightened the belt of her bathrobe. "I'm sorry," I said, offering up the gifts. "Friends?"
"You should have called, " Georgiana said.
"Linda's kids went off to visit their dad this weekend and Linda spent the night."
"I see." My voice wavered with understanding. I handed her the bag of tortilla chips and salsa. "Enjoy."
"Stacey, you aren't mad again, are you?"
I shook my head. Faint humming floated down the hall. A light wispy voice asked, "Georgiana, who's there?"
"It's Stacey. I forgot about the game."
"Well, let her in. We can all watch it."
Linda snuggled up against Georgiana's back and pecked her neck. Her eyes gleamed with happiness when she gazed at me. I marveled at her generosity, first in finding me a workout partner, and now, in inviting me to intrude upon an otherwise intimate weekend. And then I imagined her bare arms and legs tangled in the sheets of Georgiana's single bed, the warm smell of lust rising from her skin, the delicate tenderness of her touch.
"No, thank you," I said, blushing at my thoughts. "Maybe some other time."
Erika was exactly the training partner I needed. In two weeks, my lats gained a quarter of an inch. A week later I noticed more musculature in my thighs and calves. A sculpture was slowly emerging from the bulk of my body. I turned from side to side, posing in the full-length mirror in the locker room, admiring the gains.
I spun around and glimpsed Linda bent over her tennis shoes. "I didn't think anyone noticed."
"I do," Linda said. "I'm a mother, and mothers notice everything."
"How are your kids doing?" I asked, trying to be friendly.
"Fine. They seem to really like Georgiana. Melissa's asked her to come to her soccer game next weekend and Jude wants her to help him construct a Lego city." Linda zipped her bag and tossed it into the locker. The metal door clicked shut. "Georgiana tells me she invited you over for Thanksgiving. I'm hoping you'll come."
"I don't want to be a bother," I said, blushing.
"If you were bothersome, I'd ask you to leave."
I smiled; she was serious.
Linda knotted her long blond hair into a ponytail. I thought of Nora's hair, of how I'd brush and braid it down her back. My fingers twitched with the memory. How long had it been since I touched a woman? Any woman? Two years? Three? It was hard to keep track of things anymore. Georgiana was right. Only my body mattered. Making it hard, chiseled, like stone. I wanted to show the world there was no such thing as a weak woman. But watching Linda pull her hair from her face reminded me of my loneliness, of how I had let only two things fill the void in my life since Nora had died: my friendship with Georgiana and weight training. Suddenly, I felt out of focus.
Linda swept her bangs back with an elastic headband and straightened the straps of her black leotard. "I cook a mean turkey, and I know how to make low-fat mashed potatoes and stuffing." Linda smiled and squeezed my hand. "I wouldn't ask if I didn't want you over."
I glanced down at my feet. "I'll let you or Georgiana know," I said.
After Linda left, I squatted on a bench beside the metal lockers. Water hissed from the showers. Blow dryers buzzed. Steam and perspiration evaporated in a thin mist above my head. I dabbed my lips with a towel, wondering why I ached all over, my skin branded by Linda's inviting touch.
I didn't return Georgiana's phone call that night or the night after. Something in me froze when I heard her voice. I wanted to confess the growing crush I had on Linda without threatening Georgiana, or straining whatever friendship we had left between us. Before Georgiana's romance with Linda, I had dreamed every night of Nora's murderer circling the Volkswagen Rabbit with his Harley motorcycle. His eyes stalked my sister's slender, unsuspecting form as she rolled down the window, letting her elbow rest on the ledge, with the wind sweeping through her long dirty blond hair. Sometimes a light burned in the distance, the color of fire and ashes, a summer sunset in the desert. Then the Volkswagen's engine sputtered and wheezed. The car stalled. Alone. No one to rescue Nora but the man on the Harley, descending slowly, a vulture waiting for his prey to die.
But lately those dreams had been replaced by images of Linda and Georgiana and I, of the three of us holding hands, walking through the park, pointing at the starlings. Linda walked between us, her slim body swaying under a loose knit dress. Linda tilted her head back to kiss Georgiana, then she turned and offered those same lips to me. I leaned forward and closed my eyes, feeling the tenderness of her mouth over mine, the gentle probing of her tongue between my teeth, the jolt of energy tingling from her fingers as they held my hand, suffusing me with an unbearable desire. I gasped and woke with my legs twisted in the rumpled sheets. A cool prickly sensation inched across my scalp, a shiver of guilt and fear, longing and more longing, dissolving into sorrow.
The phone rang.
I leaned back against the damp pillow and listened to the answering machine. Georgiana repeated the same message she had already left. "Are you coming to see the game this weekend? Call me if you are. And don't forget about Thanksgiving. We hope you'll decide to join us. It should be fun."
Fun. Whenever was a love triangle described as being "fun"? I rolled over, cupped my hands under my cheek, and closed my eyes, trying to fall back to sleep. I didn't want to have to deal with any of this; I didn't want to imagine what Georgiana might have to say.
On Monday night, I skipped my workout with Erika, telling her I wasn't feeling well, and headed over to Iggy's Sports Bar, a place Georgiana and I frequented. The bartender was an older man, balding with a swipe of gray-streaked hair brushed over the scalp to hide the loss. His crooked black eyebrows looked like they'd been squiggled on by a child's hand. One eye squinted as he filled glasses with people's drowning dreams. I sidled up to the counter beside the TV and ordered a beer. The bartender smiled out of recognition and said, "The first one's on me, sweetie."
I grimaced and gulped the first two mouthfuls. I glanced over the crowd of men in silver-studded leather jackets and women in denim jeans and clingy knit tops, and wondered why Georgiana and I started coming here in the first place. A hefty man seated himself beside me and grunted as he slurped the froth from his beer.
I said nothing.
When I watched the game with Georgiana, we spoke of the team's past records, of what players we favored, and who might win tonight's game. We nudged each other whenever we were wrong about a move and cheered together at each touchdown. Our laughter permeated the thin walls, and sometimes her roommate, a surly engineering student, left the apartment to study in the backseat of her car. After the game, we lounged around among discarded pizza boxes and bags of half-eaten pretzels and crushed beer cans, our one indulgence of the week. I wondered if Georgiana was watching the game with Linda. I imagined them snuggling against each other, their lips murmuring sweet nothings during commercials.
People cheered and whooped and hollered. I glanced at the TV and saw my life for what it was: a replay of a fumbled pass.
During half time, the bartender tried to make conversation, and I retreated to a booth by the jukebox. I tried to imagine what my days would be like now. Pictures from my old life -- before Georgiana, which I simply thought of as a series of meaningless clips with random order -- played in my head. I saw Nora lounging beside me on the couch, telling me how much she hated football, all those punts and charges and silly butt pats. "Ice skating's better," she'd say, tossing back her hair. "If I had your coordination, I would have been an ice skater." She slumped beside me, her head against my shoulder, drifting into sleep. I stroked her hair, unaware of the troubles that lay before us.
I drained my beer and stroked the sides of the empty mug. My mother was right. It wasn't my fault Nora had died just like it wasn't my fault Georgiana had fallen in love with Linda. I had spent the last few years thinking I could shape the past and mold the future the way I had with my body, through discipline and control. Now I saw myself as I was, a lonely single woman in a sports bar, pining over the memory of her sister and clinging to a five-year friendship that no longer fit.
Maybe working out at a different gym would change things. Already Erika had improved my technique, increasing my chances of placing in a local competition. Who knows? If I hunkered down and devoted myself completely to fitness, then maybe Monday night football wouldn't mean so much anymore, and I could let go of Georgiana, of whatever there was left between us.
The next day I went directly from work to the gym. Already the converted warehouse was crowded with men and women cycling and rowing, pressing and squatting. Music boomed from the aerobics room down the hall. I changed quickly, warmed up five minutes on the bike, and joined Erika by the free weights.
An hour later, Georgiana appeared from the aerobics room, exhausted and sweaty. Her bulky body struggled to jog around moving bodies in bright Lycra and oversized sweatshirts. She waved, and I pretended not to see her. "Why are you avoiding me?" Georgiana asked.
I set the dumbbells in their cradles and waved to Erika to take a break. I sat down on a black vinyl bench and motioned for Georgiana to sit beside me. She shook her head. "I'd rather go for a walk. For privacy," she said.
I grumbled, excused myself to ask Erika if she'd mind cutting our workout two sets short, and then trotted over to Georgiana. "Let's go. I'll come back to shower," I said.
Outside, the cool air accosted me. I shivered under my sweatshirt and Georgiana offered me her jacket. I declined.
"Why haven't you returned
my calls?" Georgiana asked.
"Every day, all day, for the last week?"
I shoved my fists into the pockets of my sweatshirt and kept my eyes on the shadows thrown by the amber streetlights. "Yeah, I was. Sorry."
"Sorry? What happened to 'friends, first, then lovers'?"
"I was wrong. You need your space, and you have your own life. It isn't in my place to interfere. Friends have boundaries, you know?"
"And not returning phone calls accounts for one of them? I don't think so. Something else is going on, and you're not telling me."
"I don't need to tell you everything."
"You used to." Georgiana's voice quivered. She coughed and feigned a scratch in her throat. "We told each other everything. Good and bad. No judgments, remember?"
"Yeah, well, we were young and stupid."
"It wasn't that long ago." Georgiana pinched my arm above the elbow. She stopped walking and pulled me toward her though I tried to maneuver my face so she couldn't see the tears brimming in my eyes, the ones I knew I could not let fall. For a long moment, she stared at me like I was something she had found again and was afraid of losing. Then she tried to fold me in her arms, but I shoved her away.
"It's about Linda, isn't it?" she said. "You still don't like her."
"Like? What's there to like? She's a woman for chrissakes, and you're in love with her. Big deal. Can we just drop it? I'm tired of fighting with you. Go in peace and love Linda, okay?"
"What about us?" Georgiana asked, her hands on my shoulders. "We're too good of friends to let this come between us."
"It already has. And there's nothing you can do about it, okay? Trust me. It'll be better for us not seeing each other. In fact, I'm thinking about moving to the gym downtown. I hear they have more free weights."
"Why are you doing this, Stacey? There has to be something else you're not telling me."
"There's nothing," I lied. "Nothing." My voice trailed off in a whisper. A swirl of leaves danced around our ankles. I shivered. Georgiana wrapped her arms around me, and I didn't think quick enough to pull back this time. Her thick body was warm through her coat. A car drove by flashing its garishly bright headlights over us. I didn't want to tell her, but I felt she had a right to know. "I think I'm falling in love. . .with Linda," I murmured into her collar.
"I don't blame you. She's a wonderful woman," Georgiana said.
"That's why I won't return your calls, and that's why I can't accept the invitation to Thanksgiving dinner. I don't want my feelings to interfere more than they already have."
"But can't we all be friends?" she asked.
I eased away from the warmth of Georgiana's body. A gulf of cold air swept down between us, rattling the leaves on the half-naked sycamores. I swayed forward. My gaze rested on Georgiana's face. "Maybe someday when I have a girlfriend, we can all be friends," I said, "but right now, things won't work."
Georgiana was silent.
I shifted through my mind, searching for a better explanation. "Remember when my sister died?" I said. "There was something you told me, something so profound, I thought you'd read it out of some damn psycho-babble book? You said I had to let go and get on with my life. Well, that's where we are now. I'm not saying it's easy -- the Goddess knows it hasn't been -- but it's something we need to do."
Georgiana shoved her fists into her front pockets and kicked at the crisp, newly fallen leaves. "And if I stop seeing Linda?"
"For chrissakes, Georgie, I'm not asking you to stop seeing Linda. She's a kind woman. Generous. She goes out of her way to help people she doesn't really know. I don't know if she told you, but that's how I found Erika. It was her idea. She said I had potential I wasn't using. Now I'm finally training the way I need to win. I'm happy. And you're happy. Isn't that enough?"
Georgiana arched one eyebrow. And though the hope in her eyes persisted, she whispered, "I guess it'll have to be."
I braced my arms over my chest and raised my eyes toward the heavens. I picked the brightest star in the sky and imagined it was Nora smiling down at me. I thought of the changes I was going to make: to concentrate on my workouts, to visit my mother for Thanksgiving, and maybe to start dating. I breathed in deeply. My skin tingled with the refreshing change of fall to winter. This time next year, I hoped to be sporting my first bodybuilding medal. And maybe, in a few years, I'd find a woman who could appreciate me as much as I did her. I slipped one arm around Georgiana's back. "Let's go," I said. "You can't keep Linda waiting."
Buy books at Blithe House, in association with Amazon.com
About The Authors